By Agrippina Fadel
On the first Saturday of the month from October to April, Former Coral Springs Mayor Roy Gold starts his morning at the Sandy Ridge Sanctuary, leading groups of residents and guests on a nature tour around the 38-acre park that he had a hand in preserving in the 1990s.
A safe haven for gopher tortoises and other native Florida species, Sandy Ridge gives residents an opportunity to see what the land where the city now stands looked like before it was developed.
Maplewood Isle resident and former commissioner and mayor from 2004 – 2012, Gold has served on the city’s Environmental Sustainability Committee since 1994, the same year he came across a few remaining green areas that could be potentially preserved in the fast-growing city.
“I moved to Coral Springs from Michigan in 1978. The community was very small, maybe around 20,000 people or less. I got to see a lot of changes, and I wanted to make a difference,” he said.
Gold remembers when the Coral Square mall was built, with large construction vehicles ripping up all the trees to clear the area. “You could literally see all the animals running away as their habitat was destroyed. I felt really bad about it, but I guess when you are building a mall, you can’t expect much else,” he said.
Seeing how fast the city was being developed gave Gold an idea that he brought to the public around 1994.
After a citizen-driven initiative — and the first-of-its-kind referendum supported by over two-thirds of the voters — the city created a $7.5 million environmentally sensitive land bond issue to purchase some of the remaining forested lands within the city limits.
An additional $2.5 million state grant brought the total amount to $10 million and allowed the city to purchase four parks: Red Lichen Sanctuary, Pine Flats Preserve, Cypress Gateway, and Sandy Ridge Sanctuary — the last being the largest publicly owned pine flats preserve in Broward County at the time.
Before the 1994 bond issue was passed, the land was scheduled to be developed into 195 zero-lot homes. The landowner, Charlie Bosco, was an orchid producer who created the idea of using orchids to be worn as wrist corsages.
Gold said there were a lot of people supporting the purchase of the parks but also some who were against it, who wanted to “develop every square inch of the city into something that they could sell.”
The people behind the initiative felt the real value was in saving the land and nature.
“We discovered 12-15 sites of environmentally sensitive lands that could be purchased with the bond funds for that cause and narrowed it down to four in the end. Sandy Ridge sanctuary was the biggest one of them,” Gold said, adding that some of the saved areas were in complete disarray, with 55 lb. drums and couches and a tremendous amount of illegal dumping.
“I remember walking around the area when it was originally purchased in 1996 and having goosebumps. I was stunned by the thought. We did it. The land was now going to be saved,” said Gold.
He added that over 25 years later, seeing families walking around the sanctuary, using the trails and the playground, makes him very happy. “There are a lot of residents living around Sandy Ridge, so the fact that they can take advantage of this beautiful park means a lot to me.”
The sanctuary is a state-registered gopher tortoise preserve with various rules, restrictions, and maintenance requirements. In the years after acquiring the property, the city relocated several tortoises to the park when their natural habitats were destroyed during development.
Sandy Ridge is home to a variety of plant species, including Florida Slash Pines, Oaks, and Bald Cypress.
Some of the great features of the sanctuary are a beautiful meandering trail that traverses the park, a large bog, and a manmade lake, which the city filled with fish when it was first created. It provides food for the birds and helps sustain the habitat.
Gold runs the free group walks around the park during the colder season and gives people an opportunity to schedule a tour on other days if they cannot make it on the first Saturday of the month.
“I recently gave a tour to a large Jewish group who couldn’t go on a tour during the Sabbath, so I took them on a Sunday instead. They shared the information in their temple, and I had around 25 people,” he said.
Gold also leads groups of volunteers, residents, and Boy Scouts for the removal of nuisance species, plants that are not native to the area, or even South Florida in general. He recently started a program of reestablishing prickly pear cactuses that the gopher tortoises like to eat.
The Coral Springs Community Garden and Sawgrass Nature Center offered their help by providing the plants, and Gold planted the cactuses in the six areas around the sanctuary. The tortoises seem to appreciate the addition to their diet: Gold found a big bite on one of the cactuses he planted only weeks ago.
Gold is starting another program to make the land more hospitable for the tortoises.
“There are ways to do that, and one of them is a controlled burn, but in an urban area like Coral Springs, that is difficult to do. Another option is to rake up the pine needles, so that’s what I plan to do,” he explained.
He added that beyond the obvious benefit of preserving nature and local habitats, all the city programs connected to Sandy Ridge and other parks and sanctuaries achieve the goal of creating a greater sense of community for Coral Springs residents.
“People come to my tours from all over, and I hope learning about the history and nature of our land helps them feel like they belong to something bigger than themselves and hopefully encourages people to volunteer their time to take care of city areas,” Gold said.
Guided tours are offered through the City of Coral Springs Parks and Recreation Department. Call Louis Goldstein at 954-345-2112 to learn about volunteering opportunities or to book a tour.
Hosted on the first Saturday of the month at 9 a.m., the tours are from 30 min to an hour and a half, depending on the interest of the group, age, and ability.
- Agrippina Fadel grew up in Siberia and received her master’s in journalism from Tyumen State University. Agrippina is also a writer and editor at Draftsy.net. She has been a US resident for over ten years and speaks English and Russian.
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